A new Nature Conservancy report provides a land-use reduction scenario and framework to help energy planners and policymakers implement net-zero strategies.
In 2021, the US Department of Energy announced the goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035 and zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. To help energy planners and policymakers move in this direction, The Nature Conservancy explored strategies that maximize the benefits of clean energy and minimize land use. The report, “Power of Place: Clean Energy Solutions that Protect People and Nature,” combines analysis of the impacts of energy development on emissions, soils and communities in the continental United States with an effort to identify low-impact pathways to the grid. national economy to zero by 2050.
The report acknowledges the momentum behind clean energy development, noting that recent investments by Congress will accelerate development, strengthen and expand infrastructure, and encourage the adoption of other green technologies such as hydrogen, storage and carbon capture. However, it warns that rapid construction can have negative effects on soil, natural habitats and more.
The report estimates that 3.1 TW and 3.5 TW of wind and solar generation capacity are needed for the United States to reach net zero by 2050. If the development continues with the current methods, about 250,000 square kilometers would produce about a lot of clean energy. Instead, researchers have developed a 70 percent impact reduction scenario, where only 135,000 square kilometers would be needed.
The 70% scenario is achievable by adopting less bulky approaches and avoiding sensitive areas. Three recommended approaches are co-location of wind and solar energy, co-location of agricultural electricity on farmland; and uses fixed-tilt solar power.
Co-locating solar and wind systems is an effective way to save land. Fixed tilting solar panels take up less space and are a good land-saving option, the report states. While single-axis trackers generate more power in sunnier southern regions, the report notes that fixed tilt is better in locations where project size is smaller or land costs are high.
According to the study, the implementation of the 70 percent impact reduction scenario costs approximately 6.3 percent more than the current development trajectory. However, the researchers admit that this may be an overestimate, as avoiding sensitive areas reduces cancellation rates, allows for delays and the need for mitigation.
Trade-offs continue between providing clean energy to everyone and minimizing disruption to communities, protecting natural areas, and maintaining productive farmland. It is precisely because of these trade-offs that researchers provide a framework for designing policies and practices that balance these issues.
The framework begins with long-term spread planning, where conservation and community information should be taken into account, according to the report. “Inclusive and participatory planning processes are needed to ensure that the economic and environmental benefits and burdens of reducing carbon emissions are equitably shared.”
Adopting a regional approach is the second step of the framework. The report notes that the United States is regionally diverse in terms of geography and land use, electricity markets, economies and more. Energy policy also varies from state to state. It is important that decision-makers at all levels understand the differences in each region in order to enable “responsible energy construction”.
Other recommendations include ways to speed up interconnection queues, community participation, introduction of incentives for land saving on farmland and prioritization of transfer investments in inter-regional connections.
The report’s authors acknowledge that reducing the economy’s carbon emissions is no small feat and will cost an estimated $1.87 trillion. They point out that it is greater than the construction of the interstate highway system between 1950 and 1980. Because the transition to clean energy is cost-effective and beneficial to all, the researchers encourage “informed, equitable and early planning.” considers the use and investment of earth-saving technologies.